As of Friday, beef tainted with E.coli bacteria from a ConAgra plant in Greeley, Colo., has made 28 people in seven states sick. The massive recall has forced the Bush Administration to rethink the way the beef industry is regulated.

According to Steve Cohen, a spokesman for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection service officials are looking for solutions that would go beyond just more testing of meat. The goal is to develop a process that would have a “higher degree of certainty” that E-coli does not contaminate food products.

E. coli 0157:H7 causes an estimated 73,000 illnesses and 61 deaths a year. Currently USDA inspectors randomly test beef in stores and processing plants for E. coli. In addition, all meat and poultry processing plants must have detailed sanitation plans to prevent bacterial contamination. Inspectors also periodically test meat for the presence of salmonella at processing plants — it’s a good indication of the success or failure of sanitation programs.

Consumers want better safeguards, including: an increase in random sampling, for meat plants to do more testing for bacteria, and tougher penalties for plants that produce contaminated products.

This latest outbreak has also magnified problems with how recalls are currently handled. When a recall is issued the USDA does not release the names of stores and wholesalers that processors have sold the meat to. That makes it hard for consumers to tell whether they have purchased contaminated products or not.

The changes won’t all come from within the USDA. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Ia., has introduced legislation that gives the USDA authority to require companies to recall tainted food. All recalls are voluntary in nature now. However, the bill does not require the USDA to release the names of stores that sold the products, a move that consumer advocates definitely want.

The Jack in the Box restaurant chain has some of the toughest food safety rules in the industry for meat suppliers — much more stringent that what the government requires. The chain developed the new rules after an E.coli outbreak in 1993 led to the deaths of four customers.

Jack in the Box only buys hamburger from plants that constantly test all meat for E. coli and inspects slaughterhouses that sell beef to the plants that grind the meat. Slaughterhouses that don't meet the standards are dropped from the company's approved supplier lists.

Others are following suit. So far, McDonald's, and Costco, a major food retailer, have set standards and testing requirements for suppliers.
However, the debate over whether more stringent testing can catch E.coli contamination and therefore prevent outbreaks is a hotly contested topic. Some food scientists and industry experts say it can be accomplished, while others say that when it comes to E.coli nothing is 100 percent and that consumers bear some responsibility for preventing outbreaks. Cooking meat to 160 degrees kills the bacteria.

Jack in the Box officials say their additional testing requirements add a cost of just a half-cent per pound of meat. And that since the testing requirements have been in place they have not had another E.coli outbreak.

Des Moines Register, Associated Press